ARE YOU THE SOCRATES of the National Security Agency?
That was the question the NSA asked its workforce in a memo soliciting applications for an in-house ethicist who would write a philosophically minded column about signals intelligence. The column, which would be posted on a classified network at the NSA, should be absorbing and original, the memo said, asking applicants to submit a sample to show they had what it takes to be the “Socrates of SIGINT.”
In 2012, the column was given to an analyst in the Signals Intelligence Directorate who wrote that initially he opposed the government watching everyone but came around to total surveillance after a polygraph exam did not go well. In a turn of events that was half-Sartre and half-Blade Runner, he explained that he was sure he failed the polygraph because the examiner did not know enough about his life to understand why at times the needle jumped.
“One of the many thoughts that continually went through my mind was that if I had to reveal part of my personal life to my employer, I’d really rather reveal all of it,” he wrote. “Partial revelation, such as the fact that answering question X made my pulse quicken, led to misunderstandings.”
He was fully aware of his statement’s implications.
“I found myself wishing that my life would be constantly and completely monitored,” he continued. “It might seem odd that a self-professed libertarian would wish an Orwellian dystopia on himself, but here was my rationale: If people knew a few things about me, I might seem suspicious. But if people knew everything about me, they’d see they had nothing to fear. This is the attitude I have brought to SIGINT work since then.”
When intelligence officials justify surveillance, they tend to use the stilted language of national security, and we typically hear only from senior officials who stick to their platitudes. It is rare for mid-level experts — the ones conducting the actual surveillance — to frankly explain what they do and why. And in this case, the candid confessions come from the NSA’s own surveillance philosopher. The columns answer a sociological curiosity: How does working at an intelligence agency turn a privacy hawk into a prophet of eavesdropping?
Not long after joining the NSA, Socrates was assigned a diplomatic target. He knew the saying by Henry Stimson that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” and he felt uncomfortable doing the digital equivalent of it. As he wrote, “If there were any place in the world that idealism should rule and we should show voluntary restraint in our intelligence work, diplomacy was that place. Terrorists who meant harm to children and puppies were one thing, but civil servants talking about work while schlepping their kids to soccer practice seemed a little too close to home.”
His polygraph was an epiphany, however.
“We tend to mistrust what we do not understand well,” he noted. “A target that has no ill will to the U.S., but which is being monitored, needs better and more monitoring, not less. So if we’re in for a penny, we need to be in for a pound.”
I wanted to know more about Socrates, but one of the asymmetric oddities of the NSA is that the agency permits itself to know whatever it wants to know about any of us, yet does everything it can to prevent us from knowing anything about the men and women who surveil us, aside from a handful of senior officials who function as the agency’s public face. An NSA spokesperson refused to confirm that Socrates even worked there. “I don’t have anything to provide for your research,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
Socrates lives in the age of Google and data-mining. Like the rest of us, he cannot remain invisible.
The “SIGINT Philosopher” columns, provided to The Intercept by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, gave me the opportunity to learn more without the agency’s assistance, because they included his name. Heading down the path of collecting information about Socrates (whose name we are not publishing — more on that later), I was in the odd position of conducting surveillance on a proponent of surveillance, so I had a get-out-of-guilt-free card.
Unlike the paranoid eavesdropper played by Gene Hackman in The Conversation, or the quiet Stasi agent at the center of The Lives of Others, Socrates lives in the age of Google and data-mining. Like the rest of us, he cannot remain invisible. Socrates was an evangelical Christian for seven years, got married at 19, divorced at 27 and remarried not long after. He is now a registered Democrat and lives in a Maryland suburb with his son and wife, a public school teacher. I’ve seen the inside of their house, thanks to a real estate listing; the home, on a cul de sac, has four bedrooms, is more than 2,000 square feet, and has a nice wooden deck. I’ve also seen pictures of their son, because Socrates and his wife posted family snapshots on their Facebook accounts. His wife was on Twitter.
Conducting surveillance can be a creepily invasive procedure, as Socrates discovered while peering into the digital life of his first diplomatic target, and as I discovered while collecting information about him. In the abstract, surveillance might seem an antiseptic activity — just a matter of figuring out whether a valid security reason exists to surveil a target and then executing a computer command and letting the algorithms do the rest. But it’s not always that clinical. Sheelagh McNeill, the research editor with whom I worked on this story, was able to find Socrates’ phone number, and although he did not respond to voicemails, he eventually got on the line when I called at night.
His young son answered and fetched his father. Socrates was not pleased. He asked that I not disclose his identity, which was ironic because his columns praised the virtues of total transparency as a way to build trust. Why shouldn’t the public know about him? What’s wrong with a bit of well-intentioned surveillance among fellow Americans? I was not able to ask these questions, however.
“I can’t say anything,” he said, not long before he hung up. “You can’t use my name.”
He didn’t need to say anything, because his NSA columns explained a lot, as did the online databases McNeill and I consulted, though all of it paled in comparison to the motherlode of his blog.
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